Arguably the oldest town in West Virginia, Shepherdstown remains surprisingly on trend within an assortment of social, political, and even municipal categories. Which is why it should come as no surprise to learn that the town began exploring the emergence of transient lodging back in 2017.
Also referred to as transient occupancy or housing, most people know it by another name: Airbnb. A quick Wiki search explains that Airbnb, Inc. operates an online marketplace and hospitality service which is accessible via its websites and mobile apps. Members can use the service to arrange or offer lodging, primarily homestays, or tourism experiences.
Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Maybe you use it all the time. Maybe you don’t care. Regardless, the transient lodging industry—and Airbnb particularly—as they say, is coming to a town near you (if it hasn’t already arrived). So, Shepherdstown is having a conversation that smaller towns around the country are also having—leading with a central question: is it right for us?
That question back in 2017 led to the formation of the town’s Transient Lodging Taskforce. Currently, Shepherdstown boasts two Airbnbs on German St., and over 40 outside city limits, though the two in town are under a commercial/residential rule restricted to Main Street. Transient lodging supporters in town would like to see that rule expanded to essentially comprise all of downtown Shepherdstown. Opponents aren’t so keen on the idea—and have raised numerous questions which the Task Force recently tried to address in an official Recommendation to the Town Council.
“Within Shepherdstown’s comprehensive plan, it does recognize that this topic needs examined—the whole idea of short-term lodging,” noted Deborah Tucker, chair of the Task Force, as well as a member of both the Town Council and Planning Commission.
Tucker feels it’s an important topic for Shepherdstown because the way people travel is different now—especially younger people. “People are getting their information more and more on the fly—whether that’s through a phone app or a computer at home,” she said. “They like the ability to use technology, and they also like to stay in town—they like the novelty of being in personal spaces. The timing surrounding this conversation is that more and more people are using this type of platform as a means of travel. Whether it’s people coming off of the C/O Canal, coming in for CATF, or heritage tourism like Antietam or Harpers Ferry, folks are making their way to Shepherdstown and looking for a different kind of lodging in addition to what we already have.”
The Task Force had a number of open forums on the matter, and each member spent significant amounts of time in 2018 researching the topic and examining both sides of the issue at length.
Task Force member Dow Benedict sees both the advantages and disadvantages, and voted against the issue because he fears, in spite of all the efforts made by the group, including the open meetings, there simply hasn’t been enough public input on the matter.
“We heard from a number of people who want the option of having transient housing in their home, while we heard from only a few who were opposed to the idea,” he explained. “Perhaps that is the position of the town, but I fear many people have not spoken at this point. I hope that more residents will provide their opinions when this issue is addressed by the Town Council.”
Benedict recognized that, in the past, Shepherdstown has dealt with a number of issues that are not unrelated to this topic. “We passed a change to the zoning document to permit rental of apartments in large homes in town in order to provide some income for an elderly homeowner to be able to stay in their home. We dealt with definitions for R-1 and R-2 districts in an effort to protect the single-family homes that the majority of residents wanted at that time. And for years, we discussed fencing in town, and that always led to a conversation about the kind of town we wanted to be.”
Ultimately, Benedict is not convinced of the overall need for Airbnb in Shepherdstown at present. “With the exception of the theater festival [CATF], there is seldom a time when there is not a room available in the hotels and bed and breakfasts already here,” he maintained. “I do understand there are travelers who desire a different experience than what a hotel provides, but again, I wonder if there is a real need to provide this type of housing in town.”
Benedict also acknowledged that, in order to implement transient lodging in Shepherdstown, there will be a number of ordinances that require changing. “Having dealt with changes in the comprehensive plan and zoning document several times in my years on the Planning Commission, I know they can be time consuming but not impossible.
“Generally, I think the Task Force has done a very good job in studying this issue and, even though I voted against it, I believe it could be implemented in Shepherdstown with minimal issues. The conditions the Task Force placed on any property owner who would offer transient housing are such that I believe the provisions are in place that would greatly reduce the number of negative issues that I have seen in many studies. To me, it boils down to what do the majority of town residents want of their town. We need to hear from everyone.”
The provisions Benedict mentioned are outlined carefully in the Task Force’s aforementioned Recommendation to the Town Council. To read the full recommendation, click here.
Town Recorder and Task Force member, Lori Robertson, like her colleagues, did a ton of research, and supports the idea. “I think, if done correctly in Shepherdstown, it can work well here, and really benefit downtown businesses,” she affirmed. “One of the reasons we looked hard at it was because, in our research, we came across a number of municipalities that had pushed transient lodging through without a lot of forethought, and they ended up with problems—some of them actually having to reverse their ordinances, and we didn’t want to see that happen here.”
Robertson believes Shepherdstown’s uniqueness makes it perfect for services like Airbnb. “What we’ve seen over the years is that people really like to be in town when they visit, and walking into town from their place of lodging will be that much more appealing, adding to our already-attractive lodging options with the Bavarian and Thomas Shepherd Inns, as well as the Clarion.”
She added, “We want to maintain our uniqueness, our history, and the integrity of our old homes and structures—and the overall experience associated with the history here. I think it’s a good base; we’ve discussed the fine details, and once the Council considers it, we’re here to help.”
Shepherdstown Mayor Jim Auxer is concerned that a transient-housing implementation could negatively impact long-term rentals in town, which could then hurt many of the service-industry employers who rely on workers that live in town—some of them younger and/or college students.
“The parking situation is also an obvious concern,” he pointed out. “There’s not enough residential parking now; I think transient housing could exacerbate this issue.”
He also sees potential challenges with the Task Force’s recommendations. “Enforcing many of them could be complicated. We don’t have the staff to adequately inspect, license, and enforce a lot of this stuff. And what if someone who’s lived here for thirty years doesn’t want someone operating Airbnb next to their house? What is their recourse? We don’t want to spend a bunch of time in court, either. Handicap accessibility is also an issue.”
(It should be noted that one of the Task Force’s requirements is that an Airbnb property must be owner-occupied.)
Overall, Auxer thinks the conversation shines a light on how unique this particular situation is on either side of the issue: “For sure, there’s no right or wrong answer to this,” he confirmed. “We’ll likely make a decision on this in January. And maybe in the future, we’ll see what happens as this issue evolves, which it likely will—but we have to finish the process. We can’t continue to drag people along or keep talking about it—we have to come to some type of decision. But again, who knows what the future holds. The bottom line is that everyone involved wants to do what’s best for Shepherdstown, and that’s why we’re doing our best here to consider all sides.”
— The Shepherdstown Town Council met on Tuesday, January 8, at 6:30pm at Town Hall (104 North King St.) to discuss this issue.By Mike Chalmers